Monrovia — The Liberian government has created a special court to deal with not only rising rape cases, but also other forms of violence against women, Liberia's Information Minister Laurence Bropleh told IRIN.
"The government has agreed to set up this court and the building is being built right now," he said on 19 March.
During Liberia's 14 year civil conflict 850,000 people fled their homes and at least 270,000 were killed. During the war the rape of girls and women was widespread. Since peace was sealed in 2003, sex crimes - and impunity for them - have persisted throughout the country.
Although a rape law was enacted in December 2005 which made rape a crime with a maximum of a life sentence for those found guilty, rape cases have continued to rise according to rights groups. Half of reported rape cases are attacks against teenage girls between the ages of 10 to15 years old according to government statistics.
"Unlike other crimes like murder, theft of property, or criminal mischief, the regular courts do not regularly deal with rape or sexual violence cases, either because the complainants are not willing to pursue the case or state prosecutors are busy handling other cases," a senior Liberian judge who requested anonymity told IRIN
UNMIL Independent Human Rights Expert in Liberia Charlotte Abaka told reporters on 7 March she is "encouraged" by the creation of the new dedicated court. "The undue delay in prosecuting such cases will now be a thing of the past," she said.
Liberia's women rights groups led by the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) had been advocating for the setting up of the special court for two years.
The organisation frequently blamed the slow progress of rape cases through the existing courts for the lack of justice for rape victims.
Liberia's Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis as recently as October 2006 had rejected calls for the establishment of the court.
"Having such as court has been a dream of AFELL and it is now a reality," said Zeor Bernard, Vice President of AFELL. "We are now working with the prosecutorial section of the Ministry of Justice to also have a special unit to prosecute sexual and gender based violence cases," he said.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Liberia has already established the Women and Children Protection Section (WCPS) of the national police dealing with sexual and other abuses against women. Officials there say rape is the crime most frequently reported to the section.
The United Nations Mission in Liberia's (UNMIL) latest human rights situation report released in November 2007 identified the failure to try cases of gender-based violence as a "challenge to the rule of law and the protection of fundamental human rights" in post-war Liberia.
"The failure of the state to prosecute impacted negatively on the rights of women and girls to equal protection afforded by the law", the report said.
Liberia's Gender Based Violence Taskforce head Patricia Kamara who is also the country's Assistant Gender Affairs Minister told IRIN that the new court was a victory for women rights advocates.
"From what we know the criminal courts have been pre-occupied with cases dealing with other crimes and this new court will surely bring relief to women," she said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]